You have to start somewhere.
Have you ever listened to a writer who just recently started a new project? They are practically jumping out of their pants with excitement. Their eyes light up and oddly enough, they break out of that introverted shell and start babbling away about their latest novel.
This is at the core of the Kernel Idea. The spark of inspiration. That one thing that made you believe you could sit alone in a room and write 100,000 words. However, when the writer hits the 50k mark they often forget what excited them in the first place. As you go through Nanowrimo, are you starting to sputter out? The flame flickering low?
The kernel idea is the Alpha and the Omega of your book. By that I mean it starts your creative process and it completes it. It’s what you begin with and at the end of the manuscript, everything in the book points toward it.
The kernel idea is the foundation of your novel. When I say idea, I don’t necessarily mean the theme, although it can be. Or the most important incident, although it can be. But it can also be a setting. It can be a scene. It can be a character.
It is simply the first idea you had that was the seed of your novel. All else can change, but the idea can’t. It might be a place; a person; an event; a moral; whatever. But you did have it before you began writing and you must remember it as you write. If you don’t, your story and style will suffer terribly. You should be able to tell your idea in one sentence. And repeat it to yourself every morning when you wake up and prior to writing. Knowing it will keep you on track.
Every new book I begin, I write out this one sentence on a word document as the very first writing I do. I print it out and put it where I can constantly see it.
Can you clearly state what your book is about in 25 words or less? This is a key, essential ingredient of writing a good book. This idea keeps you focused and on track. It is important to:
- Write The Kernel Idea down.
- Ask yourself what emotional reaction does it bring about.
Good writing and strong characters are the key to great writing and knowing what excited you to write the book in the first place will bleed onto the page. However, if you don’t write it down, you might forget and get lost along the way.
What Is Your Kernel Idea?
- Good news is you had one.
- Bad news is you probably forgot it.
- It is usually the first thought you had (the spark of inspiration)
- It is the foundation of your book, the seed.
KERNAL IDEA EXERCISE
Write down the idea behind your current project.
If you can’t do it, then you need to backtrack through your thought process to find it, because you had it at one point. Everything starts from something. While idea is not story (something I will talk about later) idea is the only thing in your manuscript that won’t change. Your story can, but your idea won’t.
In one of my early novels, the original idea was an action: What if Special Forces soldiers had to destroy an enemy pipeline? That’s it for Dragon Sim-13. Not very elaborate, you say. True. Not exactly a great moral theme. Right. But with that original idea there was a lot I could do and eventually had to do. I had to change the target country after the first draft. But that was all right because I still had the idea. I had to change characters, but that was fine too, because it didn’t change my idea. I had to change the reason why they were attacking a pipeline, but again, the original idea was the same.
You will have plenty of latitude for story after you come up with your kernel idea; in fact, I sometimes find the finished manuscript turns out to be different from what I had originally envisioned, but one thing is always true: that kernel idea is still there at the end as the Omega.
For my first kernel idea, I made it as simple as possible to enable me to focus on the writing because when I was in the Special Forces my A-Team had run a similar mission on a pipeline. Since I had a good idea what would happen in the story, I could concentrate on the actual writing of the novel.
I’ve sat in graduate literature classes and heard students say: “The author had to have a moral point in mind when they wrote that book.” I agree, but sometimes it is not at the forefront of the story. Many authors write simply to tell a story started by that kernel idea, which indeed might be a moral point, but sometimes is a story that they wanted to tell and the theme developed subsequently.
A moral or theme (screenwriters call it intent) always does appear in a book by the time it’s done. No matter what conscious expectations or thoughts an author has when they start writing, a lot more appears in the manuscript than they consciously anticipated.
After you have that kernel idea, you should spend a lot of time wrestling with it and consciously uncover your feelings and thoughts about it. I try to look at my main characters and determine what will happen to them emotionally, physically and spiritually as they go through the story. Who are they at the beginning of the story and who are they at the end?
This is an example of being aware of what you are doing. Not all authors have a conscious theme when they write a novel, but experience has taught me that it is better to have your theme in your conscious mind before you start writing. It might not be your original idea, but it will definitely affect your characters and story.
The reason it is important to have a theme in mind is because people want to care about what they read and the characters. If there is some moral or emotional relevance to the story they read, they will become more involved in the story and enjoy it more. Even if the reader doesn’t consciously see it either.
Writers balk at the Kernel or one-sentence idea. How can you be expected to write the entire essence of your epic novel in one sentence? You are told that every word, every sentence, every paragraph and every scene must have purpose, so how can any writer sum up their work in twenty-five words or less?
It’s simple. Your story started with an idea. The idea wasn’t much. If you write it down when you think of it, then summarizing your story in one-sentence is just that much easier.
One way to work on understanding the Kernel Idea is to take your favorite movie or book and try to figure out the Kernel Idea. This will help you narrow the focus and see how it is the foundation of everything in the story.
Do you know what your kernel idea is?